While most of the rest of the world celebrates the New Year on January 1st, the Jewish New Year, called Rosh Hashana, nearly always happens in September. Now, here's a little ‘Jewish Geography’ quiz for you: where do you think the world's biggest Rosh Hashana celebration takes place? Israel? New York? No – believe it or not the largest Rosh Hashana celebration takes place in a small city in the Ukraine called Uman.

As strange as it sounds, over the last few years Uman has become the New Year destination of choice for around 50,000 Jewish men. But what's the attraction, and why are so many people choosing to spend one of the holiest times of the Jewish year sleeping 12 in a room, or bunking down in tents, far away from their nearest and dearest?

To find out the answer, we have to travel back around 200 years' in time, when the famous Jewish mystic and Chassidic Master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, was still alive.

At that time, it was a common custom for the students and followers of Chassidic Masters to spend the Jewish holidays with their own particular leader. For years, many hundreds of Rabbi Nachman's followers came from miles' away to spend Rosh Hashana with their leader.

So far so good: but Rabbi Nachman died in 1810 at the relatively young age of 38. So why are thousands of people still making the arduous and often expensive trip to be by Rabbi Nachman's grave in Uman, today?

Rabbi Nachman's last request

A few days before he passed away from the tuberculosis that he'd been battling for three years, Rabbi Nachman told his followers that his last request was that they should continue to travel to be with him for Rosh Hashana - even after he died.

When a handful of his students got together in Uman the following year, the tradition of spending the New Year in Uman was born. In those early years, very few people were willing or able to make the trip.

But over the next few decades, word of the amazing things happening in Uman spread, and the annual Rosh Hashana gathering swelled to hundreds, and even thousands of people. So it continued, until Stalin's communists took over and made 'religion' a capital offence. Travelling to the Ukraine become virtually impossible, and Uman disappeared behind the Iron Curtain for the next 50 years.

Uman appears back on the map

Fast forward to 1990, when the Iron Curtain came down. All of a sudden, Uman was back on the map - and hundreds of Rabbi Nachman's modern-day followers jumped at the chance to renew the tradition of gathering at his graveside for the New Year.

From those modest beginnings, the phenomenon of spending Rosh Hashana in Uman has taken on an almost legendary allure in the Jewish world, with 50,000 people from all backgrounds now making the annual pilgrimage.

But what's the pull? Why do so many people want to spend their New Year by the grave of a man who died more than 200 years' ago, and why do they keep coming back, year after year?

Getting the best start for the New Year

Rabbi Nachman himself explained it like this: Rosh Hashana, the New Year, is a new start, when everything can be reconfigured in a better way. What happens on those two days sets the tone for the next 364 days.

You want that starting point to be the very best it could possibly be, because everything is being weighed up and decided on Rosh Hashana: How much money you're going to make over the coming 12 months; how many problems you're going to have; how many blessings are going to flow into your life.

On Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Nachman explained that he could fix a whole bunch of spiritual stuff for people that he couldn't get anywhere near, the rest of the time. In a nutshell, that's why so many people leave their homes and families to spend the New Year in Uman.

Does Rabbi Nachman actually deliver on his promises?

So is it worth it? And does Rabbi Nachman actually deliver on his promises?

Thousands of repeat visitors apparently seem to think so, including Reuven Levinson, who's been going to Uman for the last decade:

"Every year I come and I barely sleep, I often get sick, and there have been years when the travelling conditions have been nothing short of horrendous. But here I am, back for my 9th Rosh Hashana in Uman."

Why does he keep coming back?

"I feel like I come out of the experience a new person. Each year, I get a different sort of clarity, or a different insight into myself, and my life, and my problems that makes it all worthwhile. But you know what? Uman really has to be experienced to be believed. It's impossible to explain what's actually going on there to other people."

Bracha Fima's husband has made the trip to Uman seven times' already, and he's going again this year. "I know some wives get really upset that their husbands want to go to Uman for Rosh Hashana, but each year I practically push him out the door," she says.


"Because he always comes back better than before. Uman changes people; it brings out the best in them. He's in a completely different space now than he was seven years' ago, and I'm giving most of the credit for that to Uman and Rebbe Nachman."

Uman, the city of miracles

Amazing stories are told about things that have happened after a visit to Uman: infertile couples suddenly discover the wife is expecting; terminal illnesses disappear; difficult marriages that were heading for the rocks turn around; people suddenly meet their life-partner, after decades of waiting.

In more and more parts of the Jewish world, Uman is gaining a reputation as the city of miracles, and the place to be if you want to start your New Year off right.

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